Raphael Holinshed (c.1525-1580) was a Historian. He was from a Cheshire family. He came to London early in the reign of Elizabeth I and was employed as a translator by Reyner Wolfe, the printer and publisher. While working for him he planned the Chronicles (1577), which are known by his name, but were written and compiled by several people. They form the first authoritative vernacular and continuous account of the whole of English national history.
The Holinshed Chronicles was a major influence on many Renaissances writers, such as William Shakespeare, Spenser, Daniel, and Marlowe. The History of England was written by Holinshed himself. The Description of England, a vivid and humorous account of English towns, villages, crops, customs, etc. of the day, was written by William Harrison. The History and Description of Scotland and the History of Ireland were translations or adaptations, and the Description of Ireland was the work of Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618) and Edmund Campion. A few passages in the History of Ireland offended the queen and her ministers and were expunged. The Chronicle was reissued, with continuations, edited by John Hooker (alias Vowell; 1527-1601), in 1587, and politically offensive passages removed. This second edition was widely used by William Shakespeare and by other dramatists.
Of Elizabethan chronicles, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (The full title being Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland), appeared first in, 1577, with the enlarged second edition, published in 1587. The latter edition is particularly taken into consideration as a work with a much wider source and an ambitious design.
Holinshed’s work is actually a compilation of English, Scottish and Irish history from a variety of earlier sources. The original plan was to present a universal cosmography, but ultimately the work is found to be less comprehensive and confined to the accounts of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Of course, the work has significance not merely as the political history of some countries of distant times. It contains certain geographical and physical matters relating to the countries dealt with. There are the descriptions of England and Scotland, included in the Chronicles, and those were written by some other hands than Holinshed’s. In fact, Holinshed took the help of a number of collaborators to design and execute his big project, and as a result, this has become a somewhat discursive work, with the history lacking sharp outlines of interesting arrangements.
Nevertheless, Holinshed’s work bears some distinct merits. His language is clear and straightforward to become easily convincing. Different incidents have a lively and dramatic representation and what is more, his theme has a strongly patriotic note.
The significance of Holinshed’s work is undeniable. It proves to be a rich reservoir for the materials of Elizabethan dramatic literature in particular. Shakespeare is found to have use of the materials from Holinshed in his great tragedies. Marlowe and other dramatists, too, have the use of Holinshed’s accounts, of course with necessary and appropriate modifications. In short, Holinshed has given the background of England and English history on which subsequent Elizabethan literature is found to depend much.